The UFO Society That Claims To Be In Contact With Gods From Space
Like all good tales of discovery, this one begins in the pub.
A couple of dozen people are here, convinced that the truth is out there. But that night's speaker goes beyond flying discs and life on Mars. Much further.
Six weeks later I found myself sitting in The Aetherius Temple in Fulham with Mark Bennett, one of nine international directors of the society.
Bennett, along with the rest of the society, believes - among other things - that Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and St Peter were all advanced intelligence beings from other planets.
Oh, and that the Earth itself is a living goddess being. But more of that shortly.
First, a bit of history.
The Aetherius Society was founded by Dr George King after he claimed to have been contacted in 1958 by a 'Cosmic Master' - an advanced extra-terrestrial being - called Aetherius and told him that he'd been chosen.
"Prepare yourself, you are to become the voice of interplanetary parliament," was the message. In the society, this is known as 'The Command'.
Dr King became the primary point of human contact for the Cosmic Masters until his death in 1997.
He was, the society claims, able to raise himself - through yoga - to such a level that extra-terrestrial beings could communicate through him, sometimes through telepathy, sometimes through direct channelling.
The recordings and transcriptions of such messages - from a variety of alien intellects - are an important part of services held by the society in present times.
After the initial contact, further commands followed for King.
One said: "There will shortly come another among you, he will stand tall among men with a shining countenance. This one will be attired in a single garment of the type now known to you. His shoes will be soft-topped yet not made of the skin of animals.
"He will approach the Earth's leaders, they will ask of him his credentials and he will produce these. His magic will be greater than any upon the earth, greater than the combined materialistic might of all the armies."
"They who heed not his words shall be removed from the Earth.
"This rock is now holy and will remain so for as long as the world exists, go ye forth and spread my word throughout the world, so that all men of pure heart may prepare for his coming."
This is the statement that called the society into being. The belief that, one day, we might live as one with the aliens that inhabit our closest planetary neighbours.
Bennett explained: "So, what it means is that - at some point - an extra-terrestrial being will come to Earth openly, possibly in some kind of vehicle like what we might term a flying saucer.
"We don't know where or when, but he will come as a cosmic master. He won't be born among us, but it will be obvious to anyone with any sense that he is who he says he is.
"He will have great psychic powers. He will not age. When it says he will stand tall among men, that's probably literally he will be really tall.
"There have been stories of them being around seven foot. He will demonstrate great powers, as much as is necessary.
"From that point onwards, people who continue to break the laws of God - for example, killing each other and warfare, hording massive amounts of wealth whilst others are starving - that will no longer be allowed to continue.
"So, then what will happen is that he won't go around killing people or threatening them with weapons, but when those people die they will not reincarnate onto this planet. They will reincarnate onto another younger planet so that the only people left here will be those who are willing and able to build a new age upon Earth when we don't have war, we don't have poverty.
"Ultimately, we wouldn't even have disease, although that would be further into the future.
"To create a heaven on Earth, basically."
But as all the ugly souls go to a different planet, isn't that bad? A whole civilisation of rogues spinning through the cosmos?
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Bennett said: "Those who are reincarnated elsewhere aren't being punished, it's just the only way for them to make it. It's a natural sorting, it's spiritual evolution. Survival of the most spiritual."
If you're a bit overwhelmed here, that's completely fine. Bennett admits there's a lot to take in.
The society combines a belief in extra-terrestrial life with a commitment to prayer - we'll get to that later on - as well as karmic law, yoga, and environmentalism.
They believe the super-intelligent beings that inhabit other planets, including those within our own solar system, want to be involved with us, but can't until we can reach a higher plane of spiritual evolution.
Because they believe the Planet Earth to also be a living, conscious being, they think we must evolve ourselves beyond our current primitive state in order to keep living here.
Bennett said that eventually 'she [the Earth] will have to express her true spiritual nature.'
He continued: "If that were to happen, either we'd all just die - well, nearly everyone would die - or the next Master will come to Earth to prepare those who've got a chance of making it to raise their vibrations sufficiently so that those people will be able to live in harmony with her.
"Her vibrations have got to go up. If we don't match those, we can't live here."
Isn't this all just playing to the gallery of comic book fantasy though? Bennett doesn't think so, and argued the Aetherians follow a faith that is more logical than other religions.
"The difference [between The Aetherius Society and other faiths] is that in all of these other faiths don't explain why," he said. "It's almost like God's run out of patience. It's not clear why this should happen, whereas in The Aetherius Society we have the exact explanation, which is that it just spiritually has to."
This belief that the Earth is a living goddess has led to a strong environmental ethic within the society. Basically, they were fighting to save the planet before it was cool. Original eco-warriors.
So, what is a Cosmic Master? The society believes them to be superior alien life forms that exist on other planets, but what exactly does that entail?
"A Cosmic Master is any extra-terrestrial intelligence that is beyond a certain level of evolution," Bennett said. "All the other planets in this system are populated entirely by Cosmic Masters.
"They have evolved to such a high degree that - for example - they would not age or die, they would - after a few thousand years - change their body, but they could reform their physical structure consciously.
"They don't die like we do, they are - in effect - immortal beings. They have great powers, psychic powers, telekinetic powers, healing powers, and all the kind of psychic abilities you can imagine.
"They are extremely spiritual and have evolved beyond petty emotion and only do what is best, according to karmic law."
Which leads us on to Operation Prayer Power.
During his time on Earth, Dr King devised a spiritual battery - which contains materials like gold and quartz - that he claimed could be used to store and harness prayer energy.
That's a big part of what the Aetherius Society does today.
Incidentally, as religious affiliations go, it's pretty cheap to be an Aetherius member. It's around £40 ($52) per year, for which you receive access to the services and a good few magazines and bits, to boot.
If you can't afford it, or are just curious, you can always just show up.
Gathered in their temples around the world - the society has many locations and thousands of members, although Bennett didn't want to go into specifics - the followers recite prayers and mantras in a semi-circular arrangement around the battery, whilst one member stands next to it, acting as a conduit.
Here's another short explainer from the society's YouTube account.
Then, when a disaster happens, or something terrible strikes, the gathered 'prayer energy' can be released.
While there are no specifics discussed, targeted prayer energy can be sent to victims and aid workers involved in earthquakes, landslides, and warzones alike.
This all may seem strange - after all, it's a hell of a lot to take in - but that, Bennett claimed, is the biggest problem that most people have with the whole idea of the society.
After all, once you work your way through from The Command, up through the idea of many of the world's foremost religious figures being aliens, through to the idea of targeting prayer power at a natural disaster via a strange battery-like machine, it's a big ask for anyone - let alone those of us with a lower spiritual understanding - not to be just a bit skeptical.
It comes to us in different ways. Bennett told me he began to be interested in the society in his teenage years, before attending his first services at around the age of 16.
In the intervening 20-or-so years, he's risen to come an international director. That's a fairly meteoric rise from interested party to key component.
The skepticism, whilst understandable, is an obvious stumbling block for many on the road to the society, but - like all religious societies - a leap of faith is required for full understanding.
"That is the biggest common misconception," said Bennett. "That it's not true, that it's a fantasy whereas in fact it is the exact opposite.
"It's just that the truth is so elevated that most people can't get their heads around it."
Featured Image Credit: The Aetherius Society